The Ambulatory Activist
Helen Tolerson is everywhere—from the AIDS center to the Blues Fest.
Thursday, June 29, 2006
Helen Tolerson is happy to be alive. She says as much frequently, but she shows it much more effectively.
She thumps her chest when she talks about helping local minorities cope with AIDS. She lights up when she describes her diverse volunteer work. She giggles when she explains her role as official ambassador for the city of Seaside’s Blues in the Park.
And she refuses to concede just how long she’s liked being alive.
“Like cousin Jack Denny, I ain’t getting over 29,” she says. “As long as you pick an age you’re happy with, you’ll have beautiful success—and you’ll only get old if you make yourself old.”
Serving the community clearly helps Tolerson stay moving and youthful. After landing on the Peninsula in 1970 with her enlisted then-husband, she was one of the first group of people to live in the Del Monte Manor housing projects in Seaside, a place where she still delivers the community’s free newspapers “so people can learn from reading.” Not long after her arrival, she began her local career of service at the Salvation Army after she witnessed perceptions about African-Americans that didn’t sit well with her.
“Everybody said at that time we were the poorest group, that we always had our hands out asking for help,” she recalls. “I wanted to change that. I wanted to be the helper.”
She served for 16 years while managing her duties as a single mother of four. Along the way, she adopted a cause others were all too quick to overlook—AIDS and HIV prevention—after an experience that still fills her with emotion: She met a man whom she describes as the first local to contract HIV, a serviceman of 13 years. “Michael Pollack called and asked me if the Salvation Army could help,” she says through teary eyes. “I said, ‘Of course we’ll help.’”
With Pollack, who later died at 35 from complications resulting from AIDS, she began to visit schools and canvas areas like Salinas’ Chinatown, passing out condoms, sterilization supplies and pamphlets. When public awareness began to turn and competition for AIDS funds intensified, Tolerson and other community leaders formed the HIV/AIDS Wellness Program in Seaside to help maintain services for underserved locals.
Though she has long since retired from the Salvation Army, Tolerson has stayed on as a loyal volunteer there, as she has with the Wellness Center. She also volunteers at Seaside’s Oldemeyer Center, the American Legion 591, and Seaside’s VFW Post 8679, where she’s the oldest active member. Meanwhile, she continues to visit Seaside bars to provide managers with condoms and AIDS information.
Last weekend, she was manning her colorful outreach tent at the Monterey Bay Blues Festival, charmingly imploring young music fans to practice safe sex, as she does at public events year-round.
“She’s hard to get a hold of,” says longtime Seaside activist and MPUSD Trustee Helen Rucker, who heads the Wellness Program. “She’s out doing things and helping people that we don’t even know about. I see her little red car everywhere.”
When Blues in the Park at Seaside’s Laguna Grande Park rolls around, she’ll be easier to find, wearing “glamorous” wigs and her ambassador pin proudly.
“I’m the welcoming hostess,” she says. “I find people and say, ‘What are you doing sitting here? You have no business sitting here. The DMV is over there—you’re not preparing for any test. Get up and move, dance.’”
Her service wasn’t slowed after a blood transfusion nudged her into a month-long diabetic coma in 1981, despite the fact that she never had diabetes. Tolerson has since completed a lot of living and service. And she shows no signs of stopping.
“God wasn’t ready for me and the devil didn’t want me…” she says with a fixed look. “I’m happy to be alive.”